I Won!

Well, it was only third place, but still, “Best Arts & Entertainment Writing” for the Suburban Newspapers of America contest is nothing to sneeze at. (And I have won first place in years past.) This year the contest includes Canada as well as the U.S.

In journalism, the quality of the writing can only be as good as the subject and the pearls that come from the subject’s mouth. I was lucky to be able to write about the artist Jules Schaeffer. Both he and I share a birthday — Feb. 17 — and I don’t know if that’s why, but his work resonates with me, and he has said I understand him and his work better than most people do. Below, the award-winning article that ran last March for an exhibit at Ellarslie (and HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Jules):


Jules Schaeffer’s ability to see elegance and grace enables him to turn detritus into art

THE 19th-century brown house is small by today’s standards, and with its steeply sloped roof, it looks like elves might live inside. In fact the Belle Mead residence would be large enough for one man, but he is joined by hundreds and hundreds of the creatures he’s created.

There are so many creatures, in fact, they have spilled out the door and into the garden. There, we see various characters made from old rakes, spades and tools painted in primary colors. If you weren’t looking carefully you might think it was a playground, but then, why would a 78-year-old man have a brightly colored playground in his backyard?

“I’m trying to get the place in order,” says Jules Schaeffer, coming to the front door to let a visitor in. “I like order. Even though my house may look like it’s filled with junk or it’s crazy, it all means something to me.

“I have to show you my refrigerator,” he continues. “I was going to put it in the show but it was too heavy to lift. Be careful, I don’t want you to trip.”

Although the house is packed with wall-to-wall sculpture, it’s just been cleaned out. Brian O. Hill, executive director of the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie Mansion, removed 60 large works of art for an exhibit there.

For more than 50 years, Mr. Schaeffer has been making “junk art.” The assemblages reuse old, often rusted, industrial materials. The form is based on Marcel Duchamp’s principle of “readymade,” or “found art.” Other adherents included Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell, Louise Nevelson, Salvador Dali and Robert Rauschenberg.

“With Jules, much of his work is what it is,” says Mr. Hill. “His imagination, peppered with tidbits of youth and bursting with creativity, fondly dances through the simple discards of our society and recreates an assemblage very well crafted and smiley, if you will. He just re-invents new life into these very ordinary things.”

An exhibit of the assemblages of the above named artists was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1960s, but assemblage art is making a comeback, according to an exhibit at the New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York. Today’s detritus in plaster, paper and computer parts makes up much of the contemporary work, while Mr. Schaeffer’s art plays with more substantive materials such as wood, rusted metal, leather, enamel and canvas.

“I don’t throw anything away,” says Mr. Schaffer, pointing toward a metal bowl he’s filled with used up Elmer’s Glue tubes, now a work of sculpture. A broken ceramic crock, turned upside and placed on a stool, takes on a new beauty.

Back at his refrigerator, Mr. Schaeffer explained how, one day, the appliance just stopped working and was too expensive to fix, so it became fair game for his artwork. Open the door, and instead of the usual milk, eggs and cheese, there are artbooks as well as some of his classic assemblages: an old coffee tin filled with rusted wrenches, for example.

“It’s my hidden life,” he says.

It’s not much better at the kitchen sink, where two masks made from found parts stare out from where others might keep the Palmolive and a Dobie.

“I do very little cooking,” says Mr. Schaeffer, who admits to eating about one meal a day, mostly snack-type food, although he loves soup when he can get it. “I wish I had a cup of tea for you,” he says. The acquisition of food is not a primary objective for Mr. Schaeffer, who gave up a successful career in advertising and the Big House in Princeton to find sustenance in his artwork.

The outside of his refrigerator is typical in that what hangs on it tells the story of his life, including a monoprint of a female figure made during Sunday get-togethers at the now-defunct Ettl Farm in Princeton. “We had a great time,” Mr. Schaeffer says of the former art colony. “We would look out the window and draw cows, or from a live model when we had one. I love to draw figures. I keep that one there because I want to look at it every day.”

On the refrigerator, there’s a picture of him in the plate room at The Princeton Packet, where he works two days a week, and a self-portrait as Rene Magritte, the Belgian Surrealist and Mr. Schaeffer’s alter ego. Part of his “Reflections” series, it is a monoprint on film, an art form he invented, based on the work he does at The Packet. “You can see yourself in it and become part of the dream,” he says.

There is a paperbag that has been painted silver, and then crayon and watercolor are used to make it a mask. Mr. Schaeffer likes to work in series – there are hundreds of his monoprints on film – and admits to having a series of these paper-bag masks that, if piled, would be about 14 inches high.

Another series spotted on a visit to his house several years ago was on the brown paper sleeve that The New Yorker magazine used to be delivered in. While commuting to New York by train, Mr. Schaeffer would read the magazine, and then look out the window, one of his favorite pastimes. He would divide the “canvas” of the brown paper sleeve into a grid of about 16 squares, and in each he would draw a scene – some from memory, and some from out the window.

Since that time, the sleeves have been assembled into one of Mr. Schaeffer’s many books – yet another series. Mr. Hill is exhibiting 40 of these books at Ellarslie.

Mr. Hill has recreated the table of books Mr. Schaeffer usually keeps in his front hallway. “You open the door and get about six-inches inside, but that’s about as far as you can go,” says Mr. Hill, describing the congestion in Mr. Schaeffer’s home. At the far end of the table of books is a reference to Magritte, with the bowler hat and a long red Bozo kind of nose.

Also on the refrigerator is a monoprint in pastel colors on a gauzy white washcloth, again of a female figure from his drawing group at Ettl Farm. It was transferred from a metal plate; he says he likes working this way because of the element of surprise. “That’s what I love about monoprints – that little extra that you don’t realize and you wouldn’t get if you were drawing on paper.”

Mr. Schaeffer has made monoprints from old roof shingles he found at Skillman Furniture in Princeton. “They had nice lines and texture,” he says. “But I wanted to add my own thoughts – it was like a breakthrough.” Using rocks he collected from trips to Martha’s Vineyard, he created a sea series from the shingle monoprints. “They all represent the sea to me, the depths and mystery of the ocean.”

Magritte, too, was after the mystery. In a quote Mr. Hill found, Magritte said, “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question: ‘What does that mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”

“There’s a lot going on in Jules’ head,” says Mr. Hill. “He’s very serious and introspective and has a lot to say about our culture, but he does it playfully… I love his sense of humor.”

“I’m usually on the dark side, unless I’m doing something whimsical,” says Mr. Schaeffer. He loves to title his work with such names as “I Do, I Do,” “What’s For Dinner” or “Fashion Week.” He will not put a work in a show without a name because, he believes, it is important to give insight to the work.

“Shapes are important to me, especially when working with found objects that don’t relate to each other. I have to find a way of getting them together. I will put it aside until I can find a way to make it happen aesthetically. I love to be surrounded by my own work and will eventually find something that will work.”

Mr. Schaeffer compares himself to the trunk of a tree with many branches. “I will go out on a limb, and that limb could be whimsical, or it could be a more serious branch. An artist should expand his thoughts and the only way is to go out on these branches and explore what you didn’t know before.”

Although there’s a lot of “stuff” in his house, Mr. Schaeffer is actually a good housekeeper. The work is dust-free, the sinks and bathroom are clean, and cardboard has been placed as runners on the floor to keep visitors from tracking in dirt. Just outside the bathroom door is an ancient brochure advertising the holiday cards by famous artists available through the Museum of Modern Art. These include Joseph Cornell, Andy Warhol, Odilon Redon, Paul Klee, Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Ben Shahn and Jules Schaeffer.

Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, Mr. Schaeffer and his friends made model airplanes from the scraps in a landfill, but the sculptor in Mr. Schaeffer was feeling its way into the world. In a section of his row house basement that had been cordoned off for his projects, he made things out of spare wires, metals and balsa wood.

Mr. Schaeffer’s sculptural work, assemblages and monoprints have been exhibited at the Atelier Gallery in Frenchtown, the Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Lawrence, the Bernstein Gallery at Princeton University, the Morpeth Gallery in Hopewell, the Arts Council in Princeton, Stuart Country Day School and the 1860 House in Montgomery, where he won first prize in a group show.

Mr. Schaeffer comes from a family of artists – his sister is a sculptor, an uncle was a fabric designer and his father was a primitive painter. He studied fine arts at the Philadelphia University of the Arts under Jacob Landau, Benton Spruance, Jerome Kaplan and Ed Colker, learning etching and engraving. Early influences on his artwork were the Barnum and Bailey Circus, two blocks from where he grew up, and Japanese Kabuki theater – he lived in Japan while serving in the Army during the Korean War.

In search of parts for his assemblages, he frequents garage sales, junk yards and his own possessions including leftovers from his three children, Beth, Sara and Adam. One assemblage contains Mr. Schaeffer’s daughter’s childhood flute, still in its case, her photo alongside it.

“I feel like I’m still in the prime of my life because I still have so many thoughts I want to express,” says Mr. Schaeffer. “I’ve seen so much and wanted to draw from it and make it my own – so that’s why I live the way I live. I’m a hermit because there are so many things I want to accomplish as an artist and the only way to do it is by living alone… There’s a reason why we’re here. I have so much more to do, I don’t know how much more time, but I’m in good shape and I’m an optimist. I want to leave something… would you call it a legacy? It’s my passion, I have to follow my bliss.

“People don’t take time to look at things, to look out the window at the trees and the bird on the wire,” says Mr. Schaeffer. “Life is beautiful. You have to bring that in. I’ve always had a connection (to the beauty out there), and there’s so much more to look at.

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    8 Responses to I Won!

    1. eDITH says:

      Congratulations Ilene!

    2. Ruth Kusner Potts says:

      Ilene! Congratulations on your award! Of course, you won, for each peice that you write captures the true essence of the artist or performer. It’s a pleasure to read Time Off and your blogs to discover new artists, and those whom we already know and admire.

      We’re so proud of you!

    3. Dallas Piotrowski says:

      I totally agree with Ruth Kusner Pottes comments. You really understand artist and the art they make. You take your time drawing the artist out by asking the right questions. Your sincere interest and warmth helps even the most reticent artist to open up. Plus your very knowledgeable about art, so when you write your stories and articles it all comes together in a very interesting and entertaining way. Congratulations Ilene, your one of the best.

    4. Thomas Kelly says:

      Congratulations Ilene. We need more arts writers like you. I sincerely enjoy reading your columns. Especially shows that I have seen, to see your take on things. Please keep up the good work.

    5. Dear Ilene,

      This is just wonderful news. Ha! I agree with the others, your winning comes as no surprise.

      What is so enjoyable about your art stories is their freshness. Of course, all your knowledge and experience is the foundation, if not the explanation, for their power.

      I ascribe the liveliness of your work to your passion for the subject, married to deep respect for artists.

      This cannot be contrived, surging through your lines like March winds, electrifying readers and, I’ll bet, converting those who ‘don’t know anything about art, but know what they like.’

      In gratitude and praise,

      NJ WILD

    6. tari pantaleo says:

      I don’t know how I missed this story the first time around, but I’m glad to have been given a second chance. It’s a wonderful piece! I feel the way I did the first time I looked through a microscope and discovered a fantastic world I could never have imagined. Thank you for being my lens, and congratulations on an honor richly deserved.

    7. joanna tully says:

      Congratulations, Ilene!

    8. t fagan says:

      Congratulations, Ilene. Loved the story last year and again this time around. Can’t imagine that entries #1 and #2 in this competition could be any better than this.

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